10 Things You Might Not Know about the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) provides imagery data crucial to US intelligence-gathering. With it, the NGA was able to locate the Bin-Laden compound, as well as determine how many people lived there, their gender, and even their heights.

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The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency provides geospatial intelligence, or GEOINT, to the Department of Defense and the intelligence community.  Its members are able to map the ground, generate 3D renderings of terrain and buildings, determine what those buildings are made of, and use facial recognition software to identify people in the area. While researching our book, Marc Ambinder and I learned a lot about the NGA.  Here are 10 things you might not know about the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

1. Before they were a three-letter-agency, they were a four-letter-agency.

Undoubtedly, it was the aggressive publicity efforts of J. Edgar Hoover, former director of the FBI, that imbued the convention of a “three-letter” agency as an official badge of quality. (Before Hoover took the helm, after all, it was simply the Bureau of Intelligence.) Intentional or not, the NSA (formerly the Armed Forces Security Agency, or AFSA), NRO, and CIA followed suit.

Thus the National Imagery and Mapping Agency was at a disadvantage. When its role began expanding beyond cartography, it grew a higher profile and a need for rebranding. Accordingly, in 2003, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency—referred to as the NGA—was born, giving it some parity with its three-letter siblings. You might be thinking they’re cheating a bit by using the hyphen, and that it should instead be the “NGIA.”  Stop thinking so much.

2. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles provide much of their data.

With the massive amounts of surveillance footage gathered by drones, there is a tremendous demand for analyzation of that data.  This work has largely fallen to the NGA, which receives imagery intelligence from the U.S. Air Force and works jointly with them to ascertain what’s happening on the ground and where the U.S. should focus its assets. The NGA has also been a key player in analyzing radar and overhead imagery of Iran’s nuclear facilities.

3. It’s been around for a lot longer than you think.

Before it was the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, it was the National Imagery and Mapping Agency. Before that, it was a series of loosely affiliated agencies, to include the Defense Dissemination Program Office and the Central Imagery Office, as well as the National Photographic Interpretation Center and the Defense Mapping Agency (the latter of which was a reorganization of disparate military imagery intelligence assets). This is a bit of a complicated family tree, but as imagery intelligence (IMINT) grew in importance, so too did the need for coordination and consolidation.

4. Ike made its product a star.

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower had a minor obsession with imagery intelligence. During World War II, he would have pilots fly him around the war zone to get a better understanding of the situation on the ground. As president, he made IMINT a basic requirement of his intelligence portfolio, and personally authorized each flight of the U-2 program. One of his final acts as president was creating the National Photographic Interpretation Center, which would later be absorbed into the NGA.

5. It helped predict strikes by Iraqi insurgents.

During the war in Iraq, the Joint Special Operations Command underwent an aggressive intelligence overhaul. One program formed to help commandos on the ground was called NGA SKOPE. It was a joint program between the NGA and U.S. Strategic Command. JSOC used the program to merge data collected from various sources and predict where insurgents might strike next. One example Marc Ambinder and I give in our book involves SKOPE cells monitoring the vehicles used by IED planters. Based on vehicle positioning in a previous attack, it could detect for similar vehicle positioning to stop future IED strikes before they occur.

6. The current Director of National Intelligence made his bones at NGA.

Before Lt. Gen. James Clapper was unanimously confirmed as Director of National Intelligence, he was the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence. Before that, he spent five years as director of the NGA. (He didn’t have that sweet beard in those days, though.) His years at the agency were critical and transformative. As he said in a 2004 interview, “I arrived at NGA—then called the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, or NIMA—two days after 9/11. Naturally, I had known about my assignment for several weeks and had done a lot of work—including visiting the Agency—to prepare myself. I intended to use the NIMA Commission Report—in my view the most comprehensive and useful of the more than a dozen studies of NIMA—as a blueprint for change. I also intended to fully involve the workforce in focus groups and similar methods of input discussion.

“The events of 9/11 changed all that. It became clear to me and to the other senior leaders of NIMA that we did not have the luxury of implementing change over a prolonged period of time. We were at war and we needed to act immediately. So, we held a long weekend offsite at which we dramatically altered the organization and outlook of the Agency. In hindsight, this was exactly the right thing to do. Our nation, and our Agency, was fully engaged in a war and we had no choice but to focus on doing the best we could.”

7. The NGA helped track terrorists calling long distance.

Early in the war on terror, the National Security Agency and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency worked together on a program called GEOCELL. The program’s purpose was to track terrorists through their telephone traffic. When a bad guy picked up a phone, the NSA would go up on the signal, and the NGA would use satellite imagery to accurately pinpoint the call’s point of origin on a map.

8. Bin Laden’s corpse? That was the NGA.

Before the trigger was pulled on NEPTUNE’S SPEAR, the mission to kill Osama Bin Laden, SEAL Team Six had access to a perfect replica of the Abbottabad compound where the terrorist mastermind was hiding. The details for the replica were gathered by the NGA, which used laser radar and imagery to construct a 3D rendering of the compound. How precise were its measurements and analysis? The NGA figured out how many people lived at the compound, their gender, and even their heights. But the NGA didn’t stop there: Its calculations also helped the pilots of the stealth Black Hawks know precisely where to land.

9. The NGA is a lot bigger than you might think.

The NGA employs 15,400 people. It is headquartered at Ft. Belvoir in Virginia, and has two additional facilities in St. Louis, Missouri. Don’t bother trying to visit either place, though. While the NGA is quite generous in providing maps, charts, and imagery to the public, unless you work for the agency, you’re not getting in the door.

10. The NGA is the first intelligence agency with a female director.

Letitia Long is the director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. She is the first female to lead a U.S. intelligence agency. Previously, she was Deputy Director for the Defense Intelligence Agency, and Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for portfolio, programs and resources.
See more articles in this series:

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